Joey McHugh wanted to win the goldfish because he wanted to win everything. He could not care less about the stupid fish. But he had to throw three ping pong balls into a set of plastic cups arranged like a game of tic-tac-toe. He wanted to show everyone that he could do it – that he could do anything. He had already won a plush monkey by breaking three balloons with three darts, a pair of fuzzy dice by spiraling a football through a tire, and a giant cookie by throwing a ringer at the horseshoe toss. “Handsome Joey,” as he called himself, would look back at his entourage and wink. The girls would giggle and Bobby would look on admiringly. Maybe Joey would give them his prizes, maybe he wouldn’t. Joey didn’t care about the prizes, he just wanted to keep on winning.
But he didn’t win the goldfish. The first two ping pong balls landed successfully, but the third ball pinged off the side of a cup and ponged onto the floor.
“Whatever,” said Joey. “This game sucks.”
Bobby piped up, “Maybe you should stick with the football toss.”
Joey gave him a menacing look. Bobby stammered, “I just meant you’re so great at it. Football. I wish I could be that good at anything.” He looked down and wished he could just disappear.
Joey took a step closer to Bobby. The girls stopped their tittering. Joey stuck his arms out to Bobby. “Here. Carry my stuff.”
“WINNER! Right here, ladies and gentlemen, we have a WINNER!”
At the sound of the booming voice, Joey and his grade-school entourage turned back to the tic-tac-toe booth. The booth operator was trying to drum up more business, hardly paying attention to the diminutive school boy, who stood frozen in utter amazement on the other side of the counter.
But Joey watched as the school’s guidance counselor, Mr. Erwin Schnitzer, stepped over to the booth and loudly congratulated the kid who just scored with three balls in a row.
“Great job, Stevie! You won a goldfish! Pick out one from those bowls and the man will put the fish in a bag for you to take home.”
Joey’s mouth fell open. Stevie? Stevie Silverman? Joey McHugh fumed. “That jerk-off won?”
Amanda squealed, “Stevie won a goldfish! Stevie won a goldfish!”
“I can’t believe Stevie Silverman won anything,” said Rose. “Me neither,” said Laura.
Joey added, relative to nothing, “He’s such a dweeb.”
“That dweeb just won your fish,” Bobby said, probably a little louder than he intended.
Joey spun to him, his green eyes blazing against his Irish complexion. “Wha’ djoo say?”
Bobby’s world stopped spinning.
“What. Did. You. Say.”
“You said, ‘that dweeb just won your fish.’ You think Stevie freakface Silverman can win my fish? You think he can beat me at anything? You think I can’t make him eat that freakin’ goldfish?”
“No?” Confused by how to answer Joey’s rhetorical rant, Bobby’s response was the last thing he said at the fair. He dropped Joey’s prizes and ran back to the school bus, crying and holding his hands to his bloodied nose.
Stevie Silverman walked away, delicately holding aloft a clear plastic bag, swollen with a pint of cool water and a bug-eyed goldfish. He was the proudest boy in all of New Jersey.
But he was also the shortest, skinniest, frailest boy in the sixth grade at Lincoln Elementary School. He was the stereotypical bespectacled weakling who was picked on by the older kids and fawned upon by every teacher. He was middle-of-the-road grade-wise, but he was attentive and polite – and he was painfully quiet. The school’s guidance counselor was concerned about Stevie not so much because he didn’t fit in to any of the social cliques, but because he didn’t “own” anything. As Mr. Schnitzer once observed to the principal, Mrs. Fairchild, all the other students owned at least one thing, be it a sport or after-school activity, top grades, or a special talent like art or music. Even the other nerdy misfits owned their nerdiness by being highly engaged in videogames or trading card collections or secret clubs. Mrs. Fairchild commented that what Stevie owned was his “withdrawnness.”
Stevie never showed an interest in anything at Lincoln. Mr. Schnitzer was surprised that Stevie hadn’t tried to back out of the school trip to the state fair.
In fact, Stevie was hoping to skip the outing, until he read on the website that among the prizes at the midway games, you could win a goldfish.
Stevie had always wanted a pet. But his parents would not let him have one. At first they told him he was allergic to cats and dogs. When he proved that he showed no signs of allergy symptoms when around the pets of his neighbors, his parents decided that they were the ones who were allergic. After a visit to his aunt’s house, where three cats roamed without rule or restriction, Stevie had evidence that his parents weren’t allergic. So, apparently it was actually Stevie’s inability to be “responsible enough” to take care of a pet. Accepting that challenge, Stevie crafted a summer-long program of chores – and accomplished all of them on time, correctly and without complaint. Exhausted but not defeated, Stevie’s mother told him the truth, a new truth anyway: the Silverman’s couldn’t afford a pet. Case closed.
If Stevie won a pet… like a goldfish…
Just a fresh bowl of water every day, and he could use an old vase. Easy peasy, as his mother might say.
He just needed to figure out what to feed the goldfish. He was already thinking hard about this as he walked away from the tic-tac-toe booth with his new prized pet bouncing in its bag of water. Which is why he didn’t notice that he was about to walk past Joey McHugh.
Joey McHugh was the worst of the worst. He tormented Stevie as often as possible, which was pretty much every day. Joey never hit him – that would leave a bruise, damning evidence that would get him suspended. But there was frequent bumping and shoving and knocking books from Stevie’s hands. And the incessant name calling, like right then.
“Hey, Li’l Peavy Stevie.”
Stevie looked over in dread. There was Joey and three girls staring at him. Stevie’s immediate thought was to run, but he didn’t want to shake his goldfish. He thought about returning to the booth where Mr. Schnitzer was cheering on other students, but the guidance counselor had his back turned and that refuge would be only temporary, anyway. Eventually they’d all be taking the bus back to school.
“Silverman. I’m talking to you.”
“What do you want, Joey?”
“What do I want? I want your goldfish, Silverman.”
“Why? What are you going to cry already?”
“I won my goldfish fair and square.”
“Who cares? I want to show all your classmates that I can make you eat that goldfish.”
Stevie was horrified at the prospect. Not at eating the fish, but at losing his pet. His one and only favorite pet of all time. That he’d owned for all of the past three minutes.
Joey approached with his arm extended. “Hand it over and open wide.”
In an instant, Stevie turned and fled. He envisioned racing across the fairgrounds, the bag with his goldfish held high to minimize the shaking. He envisioned reaching the safety of the school bus…
But Stevie had gone only ten steps before he tripped on his own feet and went sprawling across the grass. Amazingly he had held onto the goldfish. Lying on the ground he instinctively pulled the bag closer, carefully covering it with his body. He knew what was coming.
Joey pounced on Stevie. “Gimme that fish! Gimme that fish!” Joey, wanting to punch Stevie in the head but knowing better, just pushed up and down on his arm and shoulder, as if the violent pounding of CPR would get Stevie to relinquish the fish. But Stevie would not budge. He rolled himself into a fetal position, protecting his treasure.
Joey was pulled off of Stevie by Mr. Schnitzer. “What’s going on?! What’s going on?! Joseph McHugh, you leave Stevie alone.”
“Let go!” Joey defied Mr. Schnitzer. “What are you, his lawyer?”
Mr. Schnitzer spoke calmly to the boy, knowing there were many eyes on him, of grown-ups and children, alike. “Joey, you’ve just earned one day of detention, which you’ll serve tomorrow when we’re back at school. Now apologize to Stevie and be on your way.”
“Whatever.” Joey ignored Mr. Schnitzer and walked off into the crowd at the fair, with Amanda, Rose, and Laura in tow, each carrying one of his prizes – a monkey, a cookie and a pair of fuzzy dice. But no goldfish.
Stevie, now standing next to Mr. Schnitzer, held his prize at eye level and beamed from ear to ear.
“That’s one good-looking goldfish, Stevie. What are you going to name him?”
“Her. It’s a girl goldfish. I’ve named her Daria.”
Mr. Schnitzer rustled Stevie’s hair, wondering where kids get their ideas.
At three o’clock, all the students from Lincoln Elementary School gathered at the three yellow buses that would take them back to the school’s parking lot, where their parents would be waiting after the hour-and-half ride home to Bayonne.
Stevie Silverman was the first student to board the third bus, and he raced to the back to sit by himself, with Daria. That bus wasn’t filled to capacity so the closest student to Stevie was five rows away. Mr. Schnitzer was the proctor assigned to the third bus, so he walked the length of the aisle to check on everyone. “Stevie, you okay back here all by yourself? You can move forward, you know.”
Stevie beamed, “I’m not alone, Mr. Schnitzer. I’m with Daria.”
Mr. Schnitzer grinned in kind and headed back to his seat in the front row.
He turned. “Yes, Stevie.”
“Thank you for before. You know, with Joey.”
Mr. Schnitzer gave Stevie a thumbs-up. “Take care of Daria.”
The three bus convoy was cruising along on New Jersey’s Interstate 80 in Denville, about halfway back to Bayonne, when the unexpected happened, setting off a chain of events that would lead to a tragic fate that only one sixth-grader could ultimately decide.
Joey McHugh, seated in the middle of the first bus, decided that he wasn’t interested in eating the giant cookie he had won. All the soda, cotton candy, Cracker Jack popcorn and hot dogs had filled him up and made him quite restless during the long drive home. Considering the cookie, he reckoned that, it being the size of a Frisbee, it should fly like a Frisbee. He decided to test the aerodynamics of the cookie by flinging it at Mr. Monroe, the proctor assigned to the first bus, who was nodding off in the front row. But Joey’s throw overshot its target and managed to just graze the right temple of the bus driver, a Mr. Grayson. Mr. Grayson was a veteran bus driver, having driven misbehaving children for more than 18 years. But he wasn’t expecting to get hit in the head by something that knocked off his sunglasses. This made Mr. Grayson jump and unfortunately veer slightly into the left lane.
Now Mr. Grayson wasn’t speeding, he was a safe driver following the speed limit. But three school buses in a row, driving at the speed limit, led to a lot of impatience among other drivers on I-80. One of them was Carl Villante of Franklin Lakes, who had just then decided to pass the bus convoy at a speed of 100 miles per hour, not an uncommon speed for his yellow Maserati. When he saw the lead bus swerve into his lane, Carl slammed on his brakes, causing his sports car to fishtail into the rear tires of the bus.
Seeing that crash right in front of her, Mrs. Murphy, the driver of the second bus, braked and swerved to the right.
Following just a little too closely behind Mrs. Murphy was the third bus. Making matters worse, the driver, Mr. Ebersole, had looked down at his cellphone to check the time just at the moment the Maserati made contact with the first bus. Mr. Ebersole braked, but that split second of time made all the difference. The third bus crashed into the back of the second, and because of how Mr. Ebersole was handling the steering wheel, the rear end of his bus slid towards the right shoulder of the road.
Completing the chain was the most perilous component: the Toyota pick-up truck being driven way too aggressively by 17-year old Michael O’Malley. The volatile combination of inexperience, tailgating, and speed led to the pickup slamming into the third bus, just in front of its left rear tire. The design of the small truck allowed its hood to force its way under the bus, and like a steel armored ant, it had lifted the bus. O’Malley, having never been in an accident, totally panicked. Instead of hitting the brakes, he pushed harder on the accelerator.
When the first truck from the Denville Fire Department reached the scene of the pile-up, Fire Chief Jerry Morrissey quickly assessed the situation. Two yellow school buses had crashed with a Maserati – just fender benders. There were maybe 100 kids standing on the shoulder of the highway being corralled by a handful of adults, probably their teachers. EMS was talking to several men and one woman. Some head bandages, but no stretchers, a good sign. State police had shut down traffic eastbound. Westbound was also nearly at a standstill because of the rubbernecking. What everyone was looking at was exactly what now had Chief Morrissey’s undivided attention.
There was a third bus, somehow balanced on what remained of the right guardrail, its back half hanging in mid-air, tilted downward at about a five-degree angle. Morrissey realized that what put the bus in that precarious position was also what was keeping it fixed there. A small pick-up truck was wedged under the bus.
A state trooper, Doug Marshall, approached Morrissey. “Chief, driver of the pickup is still in there. He’s alive, but in bad shape. We need to get through the door or the roof. Either way the bus might go.”
“Anyone in the bus?”
“No. But the teachers are confirming roll call now.”
“Walk with me.” The pair strode quickly to the shoulder and looked over the guardrail. This section of the highway rose about thirty feet, just above the very edge of Indian Lake.
Marshall spoke. “Well if the bus goes, it won’t be too bad. I’ll get the local cops to seal off access to the lake.”
Morrissey looked at him. “If that bus goes over, nothing good will come of it. At a minimum, you’ve got a totaled bus stinking up a lake. Everyone will be pretty unhappy. We gotta secure that bus and work on getting the driver out of the pickup.”
By now three tow trucks were on the scene along with two more fire trucks from Denville. Morrissey barked orders for the tow trucks to work with the firemen to secure their winches.
A sudden eerie screech of metal on metal had everyone turn to the third bus, which shifted to a fifteen-degree angle over the guardrail. Morrissey yelled, “Move it, move it, move it. Get that bus hooked up.”
One of Denville’s volunteer fireman sidled up to the Chief. “Chief, should we foam the pickup? Lot a gas around.”
“No. I don’t want anything touching this truck that might affect that bus. Get EMS over here. The second we free the driver, they need to be on him.”
Marshall came running back to Morrissey with a fellow right behind him. Looked like a teacher. “They’re missing a kid!”
Morrissey asked, “Any chance he never got on the bus?”
“No. I’m Mr. Schnitzer. I was in charge of that bus. It’s a boy, sixth grader, Stevie Silverman. I know he was seated in the back row by himself. He’s definitely missing. We think he didn’t get out.”
“Let’s go find him.”
“Look!” The three men ran over to the guardrail to see what an EMS technician was pointing at. The emergency exit door at the back of the bus had popped open and was swinging back and forth in thin air. There appeared to be kid in the last row of the dangling bus, his head barely visible through the window.
“That’s Stevie!” Mr. Schnitzer shouted, “Hold on, Stevie. We’re coming to get you.”
At the front of the bus, one of the truck drivers was carefully snaking the cable from his winch around the axle near the front tire under the door. Just before he could loop the hook around the cable, the bus shifted again, and he lost his grip, the hook crashing to the pavement. He barked, “Again. More slack.” But his words were drowned out by a blood-curdling scream from inside the pickup truck.
When the bus moved, it dragged the truck about six inches and whatever happened inside the crumpled cab, it was crushing Michael O’Malley with excruciating pain.
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” Morrissey’s fury sent everyone into motion with a heightened sense of urgency.
The tow truck driver looped the hook around the axle. “Got it, got it. She’s hooked.”
“Get two. We need two.” Morrissey turned to his squad, “Crack it open.” Paul Castle, the deputy chief, ran to the pickup truck with a jaws of life. He jammed the hydraulic device into a wedge in the crumbled door. With a terrifying metallic rumble, the steel of the cab began to bend. But with every inch gained in the pickup truck, the bus slid two inches.
Morrissey yelled to the tow truck drivers. “Tighten that winch. Lock a second line.”
But it was too late, the bus slid all the way to its front tires, tipping at a forty-degree angle. The cable to the winch was taut and began to pull the tow truck backwards until the driver threw it into drive and fought the drag. He was able to stabilize the bus but couldn’t pull it forward.
The second tow truck now had to drive around and get repositioned to run its cable.
With the bus off of the pickup truck, the firemen focused on pulling Michael O’Malley out of the cab so the EMS technicians could work on his multiple lacerations, broken knee, and bloodied right hand, which was now missing two fingers.
“Help!” Above all the noise and action, the single-word plea was heard by everyone.
The teacher from the bus was back in front of Chief Morrissey. “What do we do?”
“I’m going in.” Morrissey ran to the front to the bus and yelled to the second tow truck driver. “Quick, put that cable on me.” The driver slid the heavy steel hook into the harness that was strapped around the chief’s coat.
The deputy chief met Morrissey at the open bus door. “Chief, wait, that’s crazy. If the bus goes, you’ll be pulled through the windshield.”
“No time. Work on securing the bus.” Morrissey climbed up on the mangled guardrail and slid into the bus. Castle stood at the door and managed the cable. “Give me more slack, more slack.”
Morrissey slid along the floor of the bus, head first down the aisle. He had taken off his helmet so he would have a clear view. At the back of the bus he could see straight through the open exit door. Leaning on the floor, but mostly standing on the back window was a young boy.
“Hi there. Your name’s Stevie, right?”
The kid nodded.
“Listen to me carefully. I need you to stay perfectly still. I’m going to slide down to you, and once I have hold of you, we’re going to climb out of here together. Okay? Can you do that?”
The kid did not respond. He looked away. Maybe he was looking out the open exit door down to the lake below. Maybe he was looking at something in his hand.
“Stevie. Don’t look down, look at me.”
No movement. Not good.
Morrissey started his descent, slowly, but with a measured pace. He didn’t know how his added weight would change the bus’s balancing act. He was counting on his men to find another way to keep the bus from falling off the highway.
After he passed each row of seats, Morrissey paused for just a moment to see if he could feel any shift. When he was three rows above Stevie’s head, he paused again. No shift. He went to slide forward but could not. “Slack!”
“No more, Chief! That’s it,” yelled Castle.
“Stevie. Listen to me. Look at me.”
Stevie looked up.
“Okay, good. You need to reach up and grab my hand.” Morrissey stretched his right arm as far as he could. “Come on now, take my hand.”
Stevie reached up with his left arm. Two inches away.
“Come on, son. Try again. Get on your tippy toes!”
Stevie looked into Morrissey’s eyes and tried again. He pushed up on his tippy toes. Their fingers touched. They smiled at each other. As Morrissey was locking his fingertips into Stevie’s grasp, the sixth-grader said excitedly, “You saved me.” Not realizing he wasn’t out of danger yet, Stevie started to take a step – to where the exit door would have been, if it hadn’t swung open.
Seeing Stevie about to step into midair, Chief Morrissey lunged forward, straining his harness as far as it would go. That extra inch was enough to cup Stevie’s fingertips. But not enough to pull him up.
“Stevie! Stevie! Reach up, reach up! Your other hand, your other hand. Take my hand, use both of yours!”
There was terror in Stevie’s eyes. He raised his right hand towards the fireman.
Chief Morrissey saw that Stevie was inexplicably holding a plastic bag, filled with water. And a goldfish.
“Stevie, drop the bag and grab my hand!”
Stevie looked at the fireman. “It’s Daria.”
“Drop the bag and grab my hand! Do it now!”
Stevie looked at his goldfish. His only pet. A prize he won by winning a game. A goldfish he named Daria. That his parents probably wouldn’t let him keep anyway.
“Stevie, please, let go of the bag!”
Stevie looked up at the fireman and smiled. “Thank you.” And then he let go.
photo credit: Ahmed Zayan instagram.com/zayyerrn